There are aspects of the Christian life that are paradoxical, causing tension when we can’t resolve them. As a rule we tend to polarize what we cannot harmonize, emphasizing one over the other or promoting one and minimizing the other. Whole denominations have been built around this type of tension. Although some tension is unavoidable, we can also create tension by unnecessary polarization.
Here’s an old question you may have heard along the way: “Did you walk to school or carry your lunch?” It’s humorous because it proposes a choice that is unnecessary. You may need to choose between walking to school and riding your bike, but you don’t need to choose between how you travel to school and what you are having for lunch. You can easily do both. The tension is unnecessary.
An example of this kind of created tension in discipleship is the polarization of the concepts of grace and effort. Somewhere along our Christian journey we heard the question, “Are you going to live by grace or effort?” Rather than considering it as a humorous, irrelevant question, we are led to believe that the two concepts are incompatible and mutually exclusive. We take it seriously and think we have to choose between them. When we polarize two different concepts (e.g. belief and action), the tension is unnecessary and ultimately detrimental. Truth is, both are biblical and essential to our journey of discipleship.
Grace versus effort is a polarization of attitudes (motives) versus action (behavior). In our relationship with Christ, we need to understand that these two are not mutually exclusive. We certainly must choose whether we are going to base our acceptance with God on his grace or our merit. We cannot do both simultaneously. However, effort is an action not an attitude. If our effort (behavior) comes from an attitude of earning God’s acceptance, then we need to change our attitude not necessarily our actions.
A friend of mine was recently diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. He told me that it was a wake-up call as to how and why he ate. Before the diagnosis he lived to eat. Now he eats to live. The solution for diabetes was not to stop eating but to change his motivation behind eating. In our culture we eat primarily as entertainment and comfort—not real healthy motivations. The solution to a healthy body is not to quit eating but to reprogram our minds as to why and what we eat.
Effort is a major theme in discipleship on the resurrection side of the cross. We are told to work, train, do, put off, put on, and the like. These actions are not competing with grace but are complementary to it. When we polarize them, we create unnecessary tension and destroy the dynamic partnership captured in Philippians 2:12-13.
So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation [effort] with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you [grace], both to will and to work for His good pleasure.
If we don’t start with grace as the foundation for our acceptance with God, our effort (or work) can become a source of merit. We need to understand at a heart level that we are accepted by God on the merits of Christ and not our own. This is a counter-cultural reality that constantly needs to be affirmed if we are to follow Christ on the resurrection side of the cross. But having accepted the grace foundation, we need to work hard because our effort now serves a whole new purpose.
If we are doing what Scripture commands, but from an attitude of earning, then we need to change our attitude not the actions. Grace is in tension with earning, but not with effort. Discipleship, based on grace, is described as a walk, run, race, even warfare, requiring diligence, discipline, and perseverance all of which are sustained by the Holy Spirit.
Along your discipleship journey, you may slip back into the default thinking of doing what is right in order to gain God’s acceptance. It is a pattern that is not easy to break. At times you may think, for example, that by serving or memorizing Scripture, or obeying a command that God now owes you some answers to prayer or maybe a little credit next time you slip up. When this happens, review your grace foundation. Remind yourself of who you are in Christ and why. Then reengage in working out your salvation from a different motivation.
Are there spiritual truths you find difficult to harmonize? To what extent do you polarize them? Is the polarization necessary?
Ron Bennett is senior staff with The Navigators. He has led discipleship ministries in many settings in the United States. He and his wife, Mary, now minister with Nav Encore. While serving on the national leadership team of Navigator Church Ministries, he wrote Intentional Disciplemaking and coauthored The Adventure of Discipling Others and Beginning the Walk. He is also the author of the HighQuest Discipleship Series, and Mary has a new Bible study titled Fire Resistant Parenting. They live in Raymore, Missouri.